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Federal suit filed over lost Penn Hills job

| Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009

An outspoken Penn Hills politician says the state Department of Revenue fired her because she testified about a lawmaker during a state grand jury investigation.

Erin Vecchio, the Penn Hills Democratic Party chairwoman and a school board member, claims in a federal lawsuit that Rep. Tony DeLuca orchestrated harassment that resulted in her Aug. 28 firing from the department, where she was a tax account collections manager.

"No, I didn't," DeLuca, a Penn Hills Democrat, said Monday. He declined further comment, saying, "I can't comment on a lawsuit that I haven't seen."

Vecchio's lawsuit against the state agency and DeLuca alleges they violated her First Amendment right to free speech and the state's whistle-blower protection law.

Revenue spokeswoman Stephanie Weyant said the department eliminated 85 positions during budget cuts this year.

"Ms. Vecchio was one of those 85," said Weyant, who said she couldn't comment on a pending lawsuit.

Vecchio was notified in early August that she would be losing her job, the lawsuit says. Joe Brimmeier, executive director of the state Turnpike Commission, called her Aug. 19 to tell her he had nothing to do with her firing and that DeLuca approached him to see if he would help retaliate against Vecchio, the lawsuit states.

Brimmeier could not be reached for comment.

Vecchio, 49, testified against DeLuca before a grand jury Dec. 8, the lawsuit states. DeLuca called her in February and said "he would make sure she lost her job if she did not listen to him," according to the lawsuit.

About a month later, James Ellenbogen, who is the administrative officer for the Revenue Department's Pittsburgh office and a member of Allegheny County Council, told another member that Vecchio shouldn't have testified against DeLuca, and Ellenbogen later accused Vecchio of telling her employees to lie, the lawsuit states. Vecchio accuses Ellenbogen of making disparaging remarks about her and comments about her breasts.

Ellenbogen, who is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, referred all questions to Weyant.

Vecchio and her lawyer, Colleen Ramage Johnston, couldn't be reached.

Others who testified before the grand jury said it is investigating allegations that DeLuca used his influence to obtain jobs for family members in state agencies, including jobs for his daughters in the Revenue Department and the Turnpike Commission. DeLuca's son, Anthony, who is mayor of Penn Hills, works for the Auditor General's Office.

Vecchio lost her bid for re-election to the school board in last week's election. She has clashed publicly with elected officials from both parties.

Police were called to calm an argument between Tony DeLuca and her son, Philip Vecchio, at one of the polling sites during the May primary.

Vecchio challenged former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum's residency in 2004 because the Penn Hills School District was paying to send his children to cyber school even though the Santorums spent most of their time at a home in Virginia. She was hired by the Department of Revenue in March 2006, according to her lawsuit.

Before then, she was a turnpike toll collector.

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